technically, there was a Big Dig before Fred Salvucci. The idea of putting the elevated Central Artery underground first surfaced, as it were, in the Boston Transportation Planning Review—Gov. Frank Sargent’s process of rethinking transportation priorities after pulling the plug on the Inner Belt and other new highways, led by Alan Altshuler—in 1972. But for all intents and purposes the Central Artery/Tunnel project is Salvucci’s baby. The MIT-trained civil engineer grabbed onto the idea as transportation adviser (and East Boston Little City Hall manager) to Boston Mayor Kevin White, and through three terms (interrupted by the 1979-83 Ed King interregnum) as state transportation secretary under Gov. Michael Dukakis he hasn’t let it go. In a sense, he hasn’t let it go since then, either.

Salvucci was the one who paired the underground highway with a new cross-harbor tunnel to the airport, two projects that had previously been in competition, and he fought what he calls the “rearguard actions” of the Big Dig’s enemies in Washington, DC, including the Federal Highway Administration under the Reagan administration, to obtain federal funding (working with such powerful congressional allies as the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Rules Committee chairman Joe Moakley). And before he left office, along with Dukakis, in early 1991, Salvucci had also obtained the state and federal environmental permits for the Big Dig, itself no mean feat of maneuvering and politicking. But he was gone before the first shovel hit the ground. Still, Salvucci never strayed far from the Big Dig stage, and as senior lecturer at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics he became an armchair critic of the project’s management by subsequent (Republican) administrations and, since 1997, by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

And in the wake of the July 10 ceiling collapse, he has not been silent: On July 21, he had analyses in both The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. But anyone reading those op-eds—especially anyone who had ever talked to Salvucci about the history, politics, and machinations of the Big Dig —knew he was just getting warmed up. So when we at CommonWealth sought out project veterans and public-construction experts to give us the good, the bad, and the ugly on the Big Dig (see “Learning from the Big Dig,”), we knew we were going to get an earful from him. But there is no better way to envision a Big Dig done differently than to get Salvucci going, and just sit back and listen.

So that’s what we did, and what follows is an edited transcript of what he had to say. (CommonWealth offered the same opportunity to the other key figure in the history of the Big Dig—James Kerasiotes, who oversaw construction of the project under governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci as transportation secretary and Turnpike Authority chairman until his resignation in 2001—but he declined to be interviewed.)


Photograph by Kathleen Dooher

when i do lectures on the Big Dig, I divide things into: How do you do the right project, and how do you do the project right? Now, the objective is to do the right project right, but you can conceptualize it as two separate pieces.

In terms of doing the right project, I would argue that the Big Dig came out extremely well. It may seem self-serving, but let me say why I think it came out well. On the federal government side, we were dealing with parts of the Interstate Highway System, which meant that we were entitled to basically 90 percent [federal funding] of whatever we could convince the Federal Highway Administration was necessary. That was built into the law in 1956 to encourage people to do things right, because there had been a lot of experience with the states doing things to save money and then paying for it later, in either high maintenance costs because things weren’t properly built or very bad operating consequences because the standards were off. Basically, the federal [funding] was to give the state the incentive to do the job right and to give the federal government a very strong incentive to scrutinize everything, because they were paying 90 percent of the cost.

[That changed in 1991, when the federal government decided to phase out its dedicated Interstate Highway Program, and capped its Big Dig contribution from these funds “at essentially 90 percent of the $6 billion cost estimate, which was the fully inflated estimate as of 1990,” Salvucci says in an aside. “At that point, all of the imperatives changed, or should have changed. Suddenly the federal guys became advocates for add-ons, billions of dollars worth.” In the next round of federal highway funds, in 1998, Congress approved the last funds specially earmarked for the Big Dig, and in 2000, after the revelation of further cost overruns, the Federal Highway Administration imposed an absolute cap of $8.5 billion on the federal contribution toward the $14.6 billion project.]

At the state level, what the problems were that we were trying to solve depended on who you talked to. Some people would say the problem was—this is 1980-something —terrible congestion, getting worse by the year, multi-hour congestion in the morning and evening peaks, both spreading each year so they were going to meet in the middle of the day. There was the prospect of a 14-hour deadlock, literally the worst congestion on the entire United States Interstate Highway System. The second point of view was that there were a lot of physical deficiencies in the [elevated Central Artery]. It wasn’t that old, but it was falling apart. The third issue, I guess, was the physical ugliness and [the way the artery was] severing the city. Mingled in that functional question was the issue of access to Logan, which at the time meant using the Central Artery and the Sumner and Callahan tunnels. As you know, there was an ongoing debate about which was more important, the [new] tunnel or the [underground] Artery—when the numbers made it clear we really needed both.

‘The idea that you save money by skimping on quality is nonsense. [Bad work costs more] to fix after the fact.’

So, not everyone started in the same place, but with a lot of public and private discussions, I think we got to the right job definition. That was to build a new thing under the Artery, wider than the current thing, and to build a new tunnel to the airport in a different location that doesn’t go through the middle of East Boston, doesn’t go through the Fort Point Channel, and actually opens up the South Boston Waterfront district and allows the city’s economy to expand. So, you get these city-building elements, these traffic de-congesting elements, the dealing with the physical infrastructure failure, and the dealing with the urban design blockage in the middle of the city as the four or five major elements in defining what the right project is. [And we got] a reasonable consensus among the business community, Republicans, environmentalists—a pretty good cross-section, from the Vault to the Sierra Club. So, in terms of doing the right job, I think we got to the right place.

the next piece of it is doing the job right. The Boston Harbor cleanup [by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] is not perfect, but it was done very, very well. It is very hard for people who are used to doing little projects to get into a big project and keep the focus on quality. It is much easier to focus on cost control and let quality go. The harbor cleanup guys had a committee that they called the What Do We Do If It Doesn’t Work Committee, and that committee began from the beginning of the project. They were focused on end-state quality from the very beginning. That, to me, is the key to their success. They weren’t looking to cut quality as a means of cutting costs.

It costs no more money to do [something] right than to do it wrong. I went through an apprenticeship with a bricklayer. You do something wrong, they kick it down. They humiliate you to tell you, “You never do bad work.” The idea that you save money by skimping on quality is nonsense. There are a lot of people who believe that and unfortunately will act on that, and that is why you get a lot of shitty work done that then takes much more money to fix after the fact. Doing it right the first time is the right ethic, and the MWRA had that ethic in the way they approached the job.

We [at the Big Dig] also were saying, hey, at the end of the day, we have to build this. How are we going to build it? Well, let me remind you, in the middle of the King administration, Proposition 2 1/2 was passed, and it put municipal budgets in a total bind, created a crisis at the municipal level. King said, “It is their problem. They have to figure it out.” The state Legislature said, “We have to help the cities and town.” They sent a barrel of money to the cities and towns to make Prop. 2 1/2 “work.” They couldn’t make it work. They just covered it up with money, but they had to get the state money someplace. They dramatically cut a bunch of state agencies, and one of them was the Department of Public Works. The DPW lost about half of their engineers in 1981—I think that was the year. Maybe it was ’82.

The average age at the Department of Public Works was 55 when I came back into the government with Dukakis [in 1983] because, by seniority, all the young guys were given up. So you had a whole agency that was ready to retire, one foot out the door—low pay, no ability to recruit from universities. How are you going to do anything? We knew that if we tried to do the project out of the DPW, (a) we would fail on the project, and (b) we would further cripple the DPW and we would never get a bridge built in Framingham. Every time you look for an engineer for your project in Framingham, the answer will be, “He is down at the Central Artery.” Every time you look for him at the Central Artery, the answer would be, “He is out in Pittsfield.” You would never get anything done. The answer was, you hire some big design-and-construction-management entity, and then you structure something to oversee it.

This is pretty much the formula that everyone [around the country] used, so we copied that and we did a procurement in ’84, ’85. A number of firms competed for the basic-design, oversee-final-design, oversee-construction-management role that Bechtel/Parsons ultimately won. Bechtel/Parsons, between the two firms, had done 90 percent of the slurry wall construction in the United States. They just commanded the field in the technology that was the dominant technique needed to make this thing work. There was no reasonable way to give it to anybody else.

Okay, we get Bechtel/Parsons. I am a civil engineer. I have two degrees from MIT, a bachelor’s and a master’s. But I am not going to go head on head with Bechtel. I am a transportation engineer. How do I—or any of the engineers—how do we, as civil engineers with modest résumés, manage this big combine of people who had done very large projects? Because they have got to be managed. They do not have the same interests as the Commonwealth, and I will come back to why I say that in a minute. We have to have a vertical structure that manages them, the traditional kind where they submit bills every month [that] somebody has to check. But in terms of evaluating if they are giving us good advice, you need the capacity to get second opinions from somebody other than yourself because, even if you know Bechtel is wrong, you can’t win that argument.

So we had a Second Opinion Committee, basically composed of the head of construction and engineering at the T, and the chief engineer at Massport, who knows the roadway configuration. The best construction-design and construction-management competency in the public sector in the late ’80s, in my view, was at the MBTA. The MBTA had done the Red Line into Harvard Square—a huge hole in the middle of Harvard Square, all slurry wall construction. We shifted the top construction guy from MBTA, a guy named Frank Keville [who died in 1989, at age 59], over to the Turnpike, and Frank’s deputy, Peter McNulty, became the top guy at MBTA, so we felt we had three really good, solid, competent people to go to for a second opinion who weren’t just gratuitously giving an opinion but had a major stake in whether it was done right or not. So, that was [one] way to manage it[, with a Second Opinion Committee of state construction experts].

The other way to manage it is to manage the interfaces [between engineers]. The Bechtel/Parsons role was to go to, initially, 10 percent level of design. That was later modified to 25 percent level of design. Then they spun it off to final design, to a so-called section designer, who brought it to 100 percent design. Bechtel had to oversee that process, approve the final, and then the job would be bid and Bechtel would have to manage the construction of it and oversee the contractor. Now, the section designer has to put their professional stamp on the final product. They are not going to do that unless they are confident in the design, because that is their livelihood. If they disagree with the Bechtel preliminary design, they are going to fight. So that is an interface, where even though I know less than either Bechtel or [the section designer], if I know there is a disagreement, and I have some basic technical capacity, I can ask enough questions and get to the bottom of that. And if I have a Second Opinion Committee with Peter McNulty sitting on it, I know I can get to the bottom of it.

To manage a job like this, you want to manage the interfaces. Where are there different engineers grappling with the same problem [who are] coming to different conclusions? I want to know about that. If they all say, “it is vanilla,” “it is vanilla,” “it is vanilla,” it’s probably vanilla. If one says it is vanilla and one says it is chocolate, I want to know why. You can’t second-guess Bechtel every inch of the way but you can be reasonably assured that they are doing a reasonable job and, if there are problems, you know what those problems are and you can know two or three different sides of that story. So that was the approach [I would have taken].

in addition, we had a study commissioned to the New York office of a financial group called Lazard Frères. The ostensible purpose of that study was to look at the finance question: Can the state come up with the local money to match the federal? I was quite confident the answer to that was going to be OK, but we needed the credibility of someone else saying that. Fine. The real question that I was worried about was the perennial problem that plagues public works all over the world, and certainly in Massachusetts, which is the failure to properly maintain. So one of the things Lazard Frères looked at is who should be the ultimate owner and operator, because if you don’t have an advocate for proper maintenance at the table from the beginning of design, the engineers will design things that are impossible to maintain. You are going to skimp a little on cost? You are going to save money? What is that going to cost me in additional maintenance requirements? You need someone asking those questions before things are built, not after.

‘[Without] an advocate for maintenance at the table, the engineer will design things that are impossible to maintain.’
[Lazard Frères] looked at a number of combinations and permutations. They looked at total privatization, which I knew wouldn’t work, and it fell on its face. They looked at the Port Authority [Massport] doing the whole job. They looked at the Turnpike Authority doing the whole job. They looked at a combination where you gave the Port Authority the Ted Williams Tunnel and access roads and you gave the Central Artery to the Turnpike. They looked at giving the whole thing to the MBTA. Basically, the recommendation came down to: You can make a respectable case for either the Turnpike or [Massport], or a combination of the two. They all have consequences. Pick one, but do it now, at the beginning. When you are doing the engineering, get the owner at the table.

[In the case of the harbor cleanup, MWRA executive director] Paul Levy was the owner. The MWRA knew they were the agency that had to make the sewer treatment plant work at the end of the day, so the owner-advocate was at the table managing Kaiser [Engineering], their version of Bechtel/Parsons. We had the Mass. Department of Public Works. We knew with certainty they would not be responsible for this, but they were the conduit, under federal law, for the federal money. So, they had the ostensible management role, which was a disastrous situation because the one agency everyone knew wouldn’t be the owner was MassHighway [as the Department of Public Works came to be called] yet they were in charge of this multibillion dollar project.

In my transition meeting with Weld and Cellucci, other than Scheme Z [the river-crossing plan, a version of which ultimately became the Zakim Bridge], that was the major issue. It was really the most important issue. I said to Weld, if you ask the engineers, they will tell you, “Don’t worry about the owner-operator. There is nothing to own and operate yet. You have five or six years before the tunnel is going to be done. You have plenty of time.” Don’t listen to them. If you wait until five or six years from now, all the mistakes are going to be embedded in the engineering and construction, and you are going to hand this mess over to someone who can’t run it. That was the most important recommendation I made. But they did not designate the Turnpike Authority until 1997. So you had six years of embedding problems into the engineering and construction with no one at the table, literally no one at the table who had any glimmer that they were going to be involved in the maintenance of this. The single biggest contrast with the harbor cleanup was the absence of the owner.

Now, Paul Levy will say, “Because I was an independent authority, I could hire Dick Fox [and a team from Camp Dresser & McKee to serve as owner’s-engineer in overseeing Kaiser], and Dick Fox is great and Fred couldn’t have such a high pay scale.” That’s all true. But if Weld had designated the Turnpike [as the owner-operator in the beginning], he could have hired Dick Fox if he wanted to. Or he could have invented a totally new agency if he wanted to. But he needed to designate the owner, and that was the thing he didn’t do. To me, that’s the fatal flaw.

The other thing that happened was that Dukakis had made a pitch to Weld that I should stay. I love Mike, but I disagree with him on that. What I said to Weld was, I think you should keep me for six months. We have a very delicate transition from [environmental review] into basic design. If you suddenly transition, you are going to lose institutional memory on the project. It is up to you. You are the boss. If you want, I am happy to stay for six months, to make a graceful transition, but this is not a simple piece of business.

Not only is there no transition with me—I am gone instantly—but very quickly afterwards, Jane Garvey, the head of MassHighway, is gone. Under Jane Garvey, the lead DPW person in charge of the project is Bill Twomey. He is gone by, more or less, March. There were five people reporting to Toomey. They are all gone by the first of July—a frontal lobotomy on the ability to manage the project in the vertical sense.

What happens to the Second Opinion Committee? Peter McNulty, probably the best construction guy on the public payroll, the guy at the T, is making way less money at the T than he could make in the private sector. He was at the T because with Mike Dukakis there was always another tunnel Mike wanted to build. He loved it. He was having a great time. The money was lousy, but the psychic kicks were great. Weld comes in, calls the public employees walruses. He ceremoniously cuts out of the transportation bond authorization proposals the entire MBTA authorization—the Legislature later restored it—and ceremoniously says, “I am not Michael Dukakis.” McNulty was gone by March. He didn’t want to be stay around to be called a walrus and to be told that the thing he loved to work on was meaningless.

The only institutional memory is now Bechtel/Parsons. This is not to say that our guys were smarter than the guys who came later. I happen to like [former Big Dig project director] Peter Zuk. He is a very competent guy. I think he worked very hard to hold this project together. [Current project director] Mike Lewis is a very decent, bright guy. They can be Einsteins, but there was zero institutional memory. Bechtel begins with an enormous size advantage in any disagreement with the state, and a competency advantage, and now they have all of the institutional memory, and there are no countervailing forces.

Now, if you asked someone in 1993 how are things on the Big Dig, and how are things going on the Boston Harbor Cleanup, you would have been told, “The Big Dig is great. Everybody is getting along with each other. They have a group management philosophy. The Bechtel guys and the state guys are all working together. It is really wonderful. The harbor cleanup is a disaster. MWRA is fighting with Kaiser all the time. Kaiser is fighting with the section designers. There is always conflict. It is a mess. It is never going to get built.” Well, these are very tough, complicated jobs, and there is conflict. You manage the conflict—that’s what you’ve got to do. The apparent peace at the Big Dig was because no one was asking basic questions. They were just throwing good money after bad, riding over conceptual stuff that hadn’t been adequately thought through, whereas at MWRA, they were fighting like cats and dogs. But the two projects were both estimated, fully inflated in 1990, to cost $6 billion apiece. They were both expected to be done by the year 2000. In the year 2000, the harbor cleanup is done, slightly below budget, and we are looking at 2006 and $15 million or whatever on the Big Dig.

What is the difference? It’s complicated. There are lots and lots of reasons. But if I have to say one thing, it is the excessive view of privatization with the Big Dig and the lack of an owner at the table, which is related to that excessive view of privatization, versus a clear owner at the MWRA and a public-private partnership that wasn’t afraid of conflict.

what does that mean for the rest of the country? I think that [under] Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, Nixon, up to maybe Carter, [there was a] recognition that the federal government has a role and ought to be competent at it, and it ought to put money on the table to help the states. [That was] the right formula. The Reagan shell game that says, “I make the [project] announcements, but I pass all the bills to you” is bad. It leads to the states being underfunded to carry out the mission, and it leads to the lack of competency. If you look at what is going on out in Seattle today, and Doug [MacDonald, former executive director of MWRA, following Levy, and now secretary of transportation for the state of Washington,] is way more central than I am to that, you have an elevated highway that looks an awful lot like the old Central Artery. It is ugly. It doesn’t work. It cuts the city off from the water, and it was damaged in an earthquake. They have to do something with it. They don’t have anything like the old Interstate [Highway] money that allows them to say, “What is the right way to do this? We are going to do this once and it is going to dominate the city for the next 50 to 100 years. Let’s do it right.” That was what the Interstate program was designed to allow people to do.

‘[In contrast to the harbor cleanup], no one was asking basic questions. They were just throwing good money after bad.’
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[Now the federal government tells] Seattle, or the state of Washington, “You are on your own. Do whatever you want. It is your money.” That is bound to lead to a short-sighted answer. And the other thing it does is, if the federal government were in the business for the long haul, as a partner of the states and the cities and towns that are doing subways, tunnels, highways, bridges, whatever, you should be building up serious expertise at the national level to countervail the Bechtels of the world. You don’t build a tunnel every week in Massachusetts. You can’t realistically pay for engineers to hang around because every 50 years you do a tunnel. If you did, they would be incompetent because the good engineers go to where the real tunnel is being built. So, you could have a very lean, highly competent oversight group in Washington, DC, that helps the states deal with complicated granite and clay and all kinds of stuff that happens under the ground that no state has real expertise in.

To me, that kind of Eisenhower-Truman view of the world just makes more sense. We have a whole country whose infrastructure is aging. The 1956 Eisenhower Interstate System is now 50 years old. It has to be rebuilt in many locations, and we are naked. We are now where Seattle is, with no major federal money and no major federal expertise to help them deal with it. If the national government were in the business seriously, they could be helping Seattle, instead of Seattle being kind of an orphan out there. So, that is the way I see this stuff.